I was, of course, looking for the worst of the worst when it came to weaponry, but it proved remarkably hard to find.  The aisle did, admittedly, have the Nerf Zombie Strike Doominator and the Nerf Modulus Recon MKII for $34.99 each. Those certainly sounded grim, given the eternal war against the undead, but the bright orange, cartoonish, completely unrealistic “blasters” on display and marketed to kids “eight and up” seemed distant indeed from American gun carnage (and our wars in distant lands), nor was there anything on the packaging that even hinted at real people getting shot in real encounters or real wars. I must admit that I don’t like the idea of Seamus shooting anything at anyone — even a brain-hungry zombie — but as it turned out, I needn’t have worried, not this time around anyway.  Zombie-killing wasn’t in his wheelhouse.

Still, I kept looking for the real gun aisle, and I did come across more blasters, dart shooters, and the like, none with the word “gun” on them. Of course, we do live in Connecticut, less than 100 miles from Newtown where, in 2012, Adam Lanza, a devotee of violent video games who grew up in a gun-filled house, killed 20 kids just a little older than Seamus along with six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School. So maybe our local toy outlet was being sensitive, but I doubt it.  There was the Halo UNSC SMG Blaster (the initials make it sound extra tough but stand for nothing) for $19.99, and the NERF Star Wars Episode VII First Order Stormtrooper Deluxe Blaster, which fires 12 darts up to 65 feet without reloading, for $41.99. The worst thing I could find was the Xploderz Mayhem, with “more distance, more ammo,” which shoots easy-to-wash off mini-water pellets. It was on clearance for $18.89.

By then, Seamus was pulling me frantically toward the aisle with the full Frozen franchise on display.  Madeline was now awake and in heaven.

So I left them there briefly and snuck off to do a last check for “real” toy guns. No such luck. I didn’t find the kind of Airsoft gun Tamir Rice was playing with when he was killed. I didn’t find an ersatz Sig Sauer either.

It turns out that most brick-and-mortar toy stores don’t seem to offer realistic-looking toy weaponry anymore, nor is there the toy store equivalent of the curtained-off area in the old neighborhood video rental shop where the porn was available. For such toys, you have to turn to an online world of websites like Kids-Army.com, where you can indeed buy realistic-looking toy rifles, shotguns, and pistols, or even to Amazon, where you can find an Airsoft version of the Sig Sauer rifle for $249.99.

“Start Them Young”

The National Rifle Association (NRA) would undoubtedly have been disappointed by my local Toys “R” Us outlet — just as its officials undoubtedly are by the way most big toy merchants seem to have left their more realistic guns for the online world. This happened, in part, in response to the sort of social pressure that my husband engaged in when in high school and — more critically — the almost routine horror of the blurred line between toy guns and real ones. You know we’re a quirky, gun-crazy nation when Cleveland could ban toy guns and umbrellas with pointy tips from the area around the Republican Convention in the name of security, but couldn’t keep out the real guns in open-carry Ohio.

The NRA wants kids to play with realistic toy guns and BB guns, since they believe that such toys are part of a child’s initiation into the future ownership of perfectly real guns. At the moment, the gun lobby is concerned that not enough people have guns — even though the 270 million to 310 million of them already amassed around this country (according to the Pew Research Center) could arm just about every man, woman, transgendered person, and child around. Still, despite the fact that Americans can now carry guns in all 50 states and the NRA continues to win most of the big political fights, the number of households with guns is actually down from its peak in the late 1960s (though those that are armed have more and deadlier weapons than ever before).  No wonder the gun industry and the gun lobby are fighting to produce an army of toddlers.

Start Them Young,” a February 2016 report from the Violence Policy Center, details how gun manufacturers and the NRA are eager to market real guns to younger and younger consumers. The report starts with a selection of quotes from the industry: including this gem from Craig Cushman, marketing director for Thompson/Center Arms, about their Hot Shot rifle for kids: “[We’re] talking about a tiny gun intended for the very youngest shooters — the ultimate first gun. We’re targeting the six- to 12-year-old range.” In other words, kids are literally in their sights.

It’s a strange world we live in. The toy industry has puffed up and candy-colored its play guns, turned up the volume on the violence online and in video games, and wrapped everything in plastic and safety warnings. At the same time, the gun industry is making its guns smaller and cuter for kids, while putting its energy into the all-important junior market.

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